SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — At a busy intersection in Honduras' second-largest city, Carlos Lopez works for tips washing windshields during red lights.
“I’m on the streets because I’m on my own,” said the baby-faced 13-year-old.
But Carlos wants to do more than survive; he's trying to save money to join his parents in the United States.
“They’re in Houston,” he explained.
Carlos' parents departed for Texas last year to work. The plan: Send money back to Honduras for Carlos and his three younger siblings, who were left with their grandmother.
But that's not enough to support the whole family, so Carlos said he set off on his own.
Now, he’s living on the streets.
“This is one sign there is so much poverty in our country,” said motorist Carlos Arturo Celaya, who handed Carlos a tip after the youngster washed his windshield during a red light.
“The government is killing us,” Celaya said angrily before driving away.
Economic hardship continues to grow in Honduras, where an estimated 70 percent of its citizens live in poverty. Half are under the age of 15.
Gang warfare has driven entire families from some neighborhoods in San Pedro Sula. Bullet-riddled walls and abandoned homes are all that's left in large swaths of the Chamalecon area.
That’s the reality; add to that rampant rumors that kids and mothers and children who make it to the U.S. border are allowed to stay in the country.
Nelson Garcia is director of the Mennonite Social Commission, CASM. CASM works to improve conditions in both city slums and rural areas coping with extreme poverty.
Garcia and other community workers say “coyotes” — human smugglers — spread the belief that mothers and children qualify for amnesty if they turn themselves in to immigration authorities at the U.S. border.
“That opened the valve,” Garcia said.
Now there is a crackdown. Under pressure from Washington, countries along smuggling routes are rounding up immigrants before they reach the U.S. and sending them back home.
“We were right in front of the U.S.” said one mother on a bus with other deported Hondurans deported from Mexico. Mexican federal police detained her with a group of other immigrants in the border city Reynosa before they could reach the Texas side.
“My little girl wants to see her father, “said Marleni Flores, 26. She was deported from Mexico while trying to reach Kentucky, where her husband is a legal resident.
Like many of those now back in Honduras, she plans to try again.
As border enforcement increases, so will the cost to cross illegally... and that will translate to bigger profits for those who smuggle the smallest immigrants.
The Obama administration has launched a media campaign in Central America warning parents and their children not to make the dangerous journey north because they will be sent back.
“People will always go in search of the American dream,” said Porfirio Espana, a San Pedro Sula resident getting his shoes shined in the city’s central park.
“I’d do it,” said Wilbert Aguilar, 16, the shoeshine boy. “Even though it’s dangerous, I’ll still go.”